The Lonely Way (or Why I’m not on your side)

Wednesday morning I was listening to the 1A’s discussion on the book The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics when one of its authors made a comment about Trump supporters that stood out to me:

People wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I’ve thought a lot on this “something bigger” idea over the years. I’ve always found it interesting that people become so absorbed with groups they’re part of. Just look at fans of sports teams, or proud university alumni, or my fellow Marylanders who wear socks, shorts, and even bikinis emblazoned with the Maryland flag. I guess it’s natural for people to want to feel like they’re part of a group, but sometimes I think that ‘belonging’ takes on an outsized importance.

We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Who knows – maybe it’s some sort of tribal instinct in us.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about this. We’re a social species; it’s natural for us to want to come together. But there’s nothing inherently good about it, either. Just as this longing to be part of a group can lead us to the good of forming, say, service-focused organizations, so can it lead to the ill of cliques and exclusion and even active hatred toward those who aren’t like us.

Sometimes we need to say no to the groups available to us. (Think of the KKK in its heyday in the 1920’s.) Sometimes we’re better off alone. Better to be by yourself, upright and ethical, than to be surrounded by company that leads you astray.

This kind of talk, of course, is more applicable to political groups than it is to people who wear Maryland bikinis. And it’s in this context that I’ve done most of my thinking on the subject.

I have this rose-tinged memory of my grandparents’ dining room when I was eight or nine years old: The grown-ups were talking politics and I was tossing little snippets into their conversation that made them chuckle. It was a wonderful feeling: a mixture of security and confidence and pride – a sense of belonging.

My family was politically engaged; my grandfather was a farmer and a county councilman, and through farming and/or politics, he knew many of the players in our small state. My aunts and uncles participated in his campaigns and others’. And we were stalwart Republicans, which put us in the minority in very liberal Maryland. We were used to feeling maligned or ignored.

I think that the two combined – the engagement and the knowledge that we were in the minority – produced a strong attachment to the Republican Party in my family. At least it did for me. And the attachment felt good. It feels good to belong. It feels good to be proud of those you’re politically affiliated with. It feels good to be planted firmly on the “right side” of something.

Only now, I find myself almost completely stripped of that attachment.

It’s not that my political views have changed so much (though some have) – it’s that the Republican Party has become something I hardly recognize. Where once I saw a party that prized hard work, fairness, opportunity, fiscal responsibility, and a robust role for America on the world stage, I now see a muddle of protectionism, isolationism, exclusion, and conspiracy-mongering.

The Republican Party I grew up with preached hope; today’s version peddles fear.

After the 2016 presidential election, I saw plenty of Democrats answer this degradation of Republican ideals with the demand that people “join the Resistance!” Meaning, essentially, the Democratic party. Or at least a wing of it. I guess it seemed only natural to Democrats that those disenchanted with the Republican Party would want to join theirs. Nevermind any serious policy disagreements. Nevermind moral judgments that stand in opposition to one another. The calculation was too simple: If Team Trump (or Team Republican) is bad, then you’d better join Team Democrat.

But of course, there’s no rule stating that only one side at a time can be bad. And there’s plenty for conservative-minded me to dislike about the Democratic Party.

And so I find myself alone.

For a while, I hoped for a third way. I looked for those independent-minded Republicans who spoke out against Trump. I looked for a leader, a movement that I could get behind. Man, it would feel good to be part of something again.

But I don’t see such a thing emerging anytime soon. And so I’ll take the lonely way – the way that refuses to choose sides when the sides aren’t worth choosing.

To be clear, I’m not really talking about party affiliation here. (I’m still a registered Republican because I don’t want to give up my right to vote in primaries.) I’m talking about something more important than that: the multitude of small, everyday decisions we make about where we’ll put our loyalty.

We can choose, as so many do today, to put our loyalty behind our party and its politicians. (Think of all the Trump voters who are deciding on candidates based on how willing they are to pledge their support to the President.) We can choose to believe the truth of news outlets that support our way of thinking and the lies of those that don’t. We can stick up for our side come hell or high water.

Or, we can choose to put our loyalty behind our values. We can detach ourselves from the pull of party, freeing us to consider each candidate, each question, each development as it comes.

That’s the lonely way. And my choice of it — that’s why I’m not on your side.

TW - The Lonely Way

To listen to an audio recording of this post (complete with baby noises and microwave beeps), click here: